Warnings: needles, blood, mentions of drugs.
Safu owned a key to Nezumi and Shion’s apartment.
It was a tiny thing, rusty because she had let it sit outside in the rain on her balcony one day, and she had never used it so far. Shion had given it to her the moment he had moved in with Nezumi, three years ago. She wasn’t even sure that Nezumi himself knew about it.
The day Shion asked her to fetch him a scarf from his place had been slow-going, with a chill in the air that called for snow; she was surprised that he asked her to bring him something, but not that he was cold. He had probably been freezing all day. The tattered bookshop he worked at hadn’t had any heating last year, and she doubted that Rikiga had spent actual money on getting that fixed. No matter how much he bragged about adoring Shion ‘almost like a son’.
Safu put her pen down on top of the table. It was strewn with notecards from books and articles she had read, and her laptop’s screen flickered out, unused for too long.
She hadn’t been making any progress on her thesis anyway.
She made the walk to Shion’s place in less than ten minutes. Outside everything was still, the people gone, the pavement dry and leafless; the sky was so dark and heavy with clouds that she could barely see the silhouettes of the buildings against it. Whenever those clouds would break, the year’s first snow would fall.
She knew it. The people who were keeping out of the streets knew it. Even the bare trees seemed to know, their knobby branches almost shivering in anticipation, as if like her they could breathe in the wind and taste the ice on it.
The rust-stained key worked its way into the hole of Shion’s door with no problem. Only when she unlocked it and pushed open the wooden panel did she remember that Nezumi didn’t have a job.
“Who’s there?” came his voice, and Safu stilled in the entrance, key still stuck into the door.
She waited, but he didn’t appear in the hallway.
“It’s me,” she replied carefully. “Shion asked me to bring him something.”
She didn’t hear him answer. Standing still like this didn’t seem useful, so she pulled the door close behind herself and took off her shoes, walking the few steps that kept her away from the opening of the old living-room. Her skin was tingling from the warmth, spiking with goosebumps along her arms and necks despite the thick coat she wore.
She marked a pause once she reached the living-room. Nezumi was sitting on the couch, face slack with either boredom or irritation.
He wasn’t wearing pants.
“Were you jerking off?” she asked, not even bothering to sneer.
He smiled joylessly in her direction. “What would you do if I was?” he replied, voice heavy with sarcasm.
Yet the frown on his face wasn’t leaving. He was clutching his thigh tightly.
“I’d go fetch Shion’s clothes and leave you to it.” Safu crossed the living room without looking at him again, opening the door to his and Shion’s bedroom as soon as she was within reaching distance of it.
The rats made a ruckus in their cage when they saw her, but she paid them no mind. She had been here enough times to know where Shion put his things. The scarf was easily plucked out of the messy drawer he kept it in, and she took a jacket as well, because she knew without bothering to ask that he would need it. Be there soon, she texted quickly, and within a few seconds a thumbs-up emoji was sent back. Shion was probably clutching his phone in the hope that it would stop his shivers.
“Tell him to dress for the season tomorrow,” she threw at Nezumi when she made her way back into the living-room. “I don’t want to have to come back here and find you naked again.”
“Not because you don’t want him to get sick?” Nezumi asked.
She flicked a glance in his direction, frowning. He was looking at his thigh, and his hand was white with the pressure he was putting on it, she noticed. “He’s insufferable when he’s sick,” she replied. “You’ve said multiple times that he deserves it, considering how much pain he is with the lightest fever.”
“Yeah, but you’re not the one who has to take care of him.”
She couldn’t tell if he meant it to sting or not. It didn’t matter, because she was long past being jealous of her stolen best friend and former love of her life. The most she felt at his words were a vague longing born out of nostalgia rather than envy.
She did remember Shion being sick as a kid. Often. She remembered drinking hot tea at Karan’s house while Shion moaned and complained on the couch or in his bed, unread books spread open around him because he didn’t have the focus for them.
“Go jerk off in your room,” she said, in the end, looking into Nezumi’s eyes once more. “That’s just common decency.”
He opened his mouth to respond then closed it almost immediately, and his hand slipped on his thigh, leaving a an unmistakable trail of blood behind it.
Nezumi’s face was pale. She was seeing it now. Paler than usual, paler than it ever was in the warm light of his and Shion’s home. He always looked at ease among the broken-and-fixed furniture and the dusty books strewn upon it. She couldn’t imagine him sitting still on his couch in nothing but his underwear if he weren’t in some sort of a bad situation.
So, despite everything, she asked: “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Nezumi replied. He threw an arm above the backrest of the couch but didn’t let go of his own leg, and now Safu could see the blood dripping from between his fingers and threatening to stain the towel he was sitting on.
She hadn’t noticed the towel before.
She dropped her bag to the floor and Shion’s clothes on top of it. “You’re bleeding,” she said, and his face didn’t twitch in any way that she could notice, but his eyes were dark. “Need any help?”
“Not from you.”
“Never mind me.” She walked in his direction, resisting the urge to look up in exasperation. “I don’t care if you accidentally stabbed yourself with a needle while doing cross stitches or something equally stupid, I can’t just leave you here when you’re bleeding.”
Nezumi didn’t move, not even when she stood a foot away from him and tried to peer around his hand.
That was when she saw the syringe.
Safu knew Nezumi. She never meant to know him, but she did; she had known him from the moment Shion came back to school after a bout of illness with sparkles in his eyes and a happy secret following him, and none of her prying made him loosen up about it. They were twelve then, and it would be another four years before she even met Nezumi, but she had known him. All this time, she had known him.
The boy who stole her best friend. The boy who stole her first love. The formerly homeless boy who kept pet rats as an ironical statement to his life, the beautiful boy, now beautiful man, who left a party at the first scent of marijuana and who slapped pills out of offering hands.
The syringe itself was nondescript, something you could buy at a pharmacy for nothing, but Safu didn’t think for a second that it had been used for drugs.
She kneeled next to Nezumi’s leg and batted his hand away impatiently. He let go with only a grunt of displeasure, so she could finally see where the blood was coming from. “So you did stab yourself with a needle,” she commented. She pushed the syringe off the towel and pressed a corner of it against Nezumi’s skin. The white fabric immediately stained itself crimson, and her fingertips were wet from it as well. “Wanna tell me what it’s for?”
Nezumi took some time to answer. “It’s T.”
“Oh. Shion told me you had a doctor do the injections.”
“Obviously not anymore,” Nezumi replied, mocking.
Safu hummed without answering.
It didn’t look bad. It was just bleeding a lot—and causing some pain, judging by Nezumi’s face—but Safu wasn’t a doctor. She couldn’t be sure. The kind of biology she studied wasn’t meant for humans and didn’t tell her what to do when someone messed up their testosterone injection.
She pushed Nezumi off the towel entirely and gave it to him with an order to keep it pressed against the tiny bleeding hole. “I need to go give Shion his stuff before he freezes to death,” she told him, “but I’ll get something for you on my way back.”
“We do have a first aid kit.”
“Great. Use it while I’m gone. I was talking about good detergent, unless you want your towel to stay brown instead of white.”
Nezumi made a face. “I’ll just put it in the machine as usual,” he said.
Safu did roll her eyes, then. “You have to soak it first or the blood will never come out, idiot.” She paused. “Unless you want Shion to find out.”
He closed his mouth, face bright with animosity.
She felt lighter when she walked out into the streets, for some reason. The wind still lashed at her bare face like a whip, her lips drying almost instantly and threatening to crack open, but her steps were faster and easier despite it.
She paused by a pharmacy on her way and wasted a minute whispering to the woman behind the counter, asking for advice on what Nezumi should do. She left with some ointment and gauze.
“God, thank you,” Shion said to her as soon as she walked inside the book store.
He was apparently doing everything he could to keep himself warm besides outright folding his body in two behind the counter. Safu handed him the clothes wordlessly, slightly worried to see how white his nails were when he took them from her, but she didn’t comment on it. “When does your shift end?” she asked him.
“Seven, but it’ll take me half an hour to close the shop. I think Rikiga-san wants to talk to me too.”
“Tell him to replace the heater already.”
Shion smiled bashfully, wrapping the scarf around his throat. “Will do, Safu.”
Safu hesitated. She could tell Shion about Nezumi hurting himself by accident, or she could stay silent. It didn’t matter very much to her whether Nezumi found his trust in her broken; he had never demonstrated any trust in the first place, not once in all the years they’d known each other.
But it would be beyond petty to make light of his insecurities for this, she thought. She had never erred on this side of things during their spats, just like Nezumi had never erred into sexism. There was enough for her to mock that didn’t make light of hardships she had no right to comment on.
“Take care,” she said, smiling at Shion. He nodded, hands holding the jacket and scarf so close to his body that she thought he might be entirely unable to speak.
She bought the most expensive detergent she could find on her way back to his home.
The house smelled like fresh clothes when Shion got home that night. He was too tired to pay much mind to it and too glad for the warmth to comment even when he finally dropped down onto the couch. “You there?” he called, eyes fixed onto the unlit TV screen. Even the remote felt too far away for him to reach.
“Yeah,” Nezumi’s voice came from the bedroom.
Shion looked above the backrest as Nezumi came out. Cravat was perched into the collar of his shirt, and it seemed he had already changed for the night, because his binder was off. Shion’s own chest chose this precise moment to remind him—painfully—that he should do the same.
He didn’t move anyway. Nezumi bent down to kiss him, smelling of soap, lips warm and dry above his, as welcome as a drink of water on a hot day. Shion closed his eyes and let the kiss last; his hand found Nezumi’s loose hair before he could think about it, and his fingers slid through the dark locks thoughtlessly. He almost tugged on it to keep Nezumi down when the other pulled away.
Cravat was squirming between them anyway, struggling to jump onto the couch. Shion caught him before he could land. “I don’t feel like cleaning rat poop tonight,” he told the rat.
“He already pooped earlier,” Nezumi offered, taking him back with a smile.
“Glad to hear it.”
It took a lot of effort to stand on his own feet again and make his way to the bedroom. He heard Nezumi open the kitchen’s cupboards as he struggled out of his clothes. His binder’s left shoulder strap cracked when he tried to pull it over his head, making him pause, heart beating fast and spandex caught around his throat. “Shit,” he muttered. He was more careful after that, and he saw no tear in the fabric once it was off, thankfully. Shion threw it atop the bed and spent a minute massaging the sides of his ribs, frowning when he noticed how chafed the skin there was. He usually never got this hurt from binding during winter.
“I think I need a new binder,” he announced when he came back out. For a moment he couldn’t see Nezumi at all—until Nezumi stood up from his crouch behind the kitchen’s counter with a bottle of olive oil in hands.
“Do we have the money for it?” he asked.
“Yeah. I can ask my mom to chime in with a few hundred yen too, I think.”
Nezumi shrugged. “Go for it, then. I maintain that you could use one of mine.”
“Yours are at least two sizes too small.” Shion walked into the kitchen, grabbing a bag of chips on his way and sitting down into one of the chairs loudly. His stomach growled painfully when he opened it and the smell of grease and salt hit his nostrils. “D’you need any help with dinner?”
“You’ll just burn the pasta,” Nezumi replied, lips curling in amusement. “You look ready to pass out.”
“Fuck off. I can make pasta just fine.” He breathed in, the smell of fresh laundry hitting him once more, stronger now that he was right next to the machine. “Did you do laundry? It smells really good.”
For some reason, Nezumi seemed to tense at that. He took the time to set the water up to boil, to pour salt into it, and his shoulders were raised all the while. “I did.”
That was all he said on the topic.
They ate in companionable silence, the TV running a drama that Shion had already missed three episodes out of. They both ended up on the couch with their plates on the low wooden table—its legs repaired in three different places—and Nezumi’s college work spread everywhere around, mixed with the drafts for his next play. Shion grabbed a piece of it to read. He couldn’t make sense of it, though, both because he hadn’t read the rest of it yet and because Nezumi had barred and rewritten so often on the page as to make it illegible.
“Are you gonna be ready in time with that?” he asked. Nezumi rolled his eyes, so Shion hit him lightly on the shoulder. “You have to start rehearsals in January. I’m serious.”
“Yes, I’ll be ready. Writing is easy.”
“You’re the only person I know who ever says that.”
Nezumi sighed. “It is easy,” he repeated, voice gone soft. He pushed his homework back onto the table, and then raised his arms above his head to stretch his shoulders. His voice was but an exhale when he spoke again, tension bleeding out of his body with every word. “It’s just putting words down on paper. The hard part is sitting down and doing it, but I’ve got that covered.”
“You are good at sitting down,” Shion commented, smiling fleetingly.
“I don’t want to hear that from someone who never exercises.”
Shion laughed, and tried to put his hands on Nezumi’s thigh to squeeze it—but Nezumi yelped and jumped away from his touch, too sudden and honest for it to be a joke.
Shion felt himself freeze on the spot. “Are you okay?” he asked, taking his hand back.
“Yes.” Nezumi rested his thigh onto the couch once more, but he was tense again. The humor from earlier gone.
“Are you hurt? Because that looked a lot like pain.”
And Nezumi frowned in annoyance at that, as he always did whenever Shion dared to show concern. “I banged my leg against the door earlier is all,” he replied. “It’s just a bruise.”
“Oh. Okay, then.”
The quiet after that was heavy, sticking to Shion’s throat like woodsmoke. Focusing his attention to the news on TV didn’t help. Neither did trying to make sense of Nezumi’s chicken scratch handwriting and the many words blacked by more and more ink.
He heard Nezumi exhale again right next to him. His arm came up around Shion’s shoulders, surprisingly. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I didn’t actually bang my leg on the door.”
Shion tried to speak, but Nezumi pushed himself away and rolled up the leg of his sweatpants up until his underwear was peaking. When he saw the stained gauze around Nezumi’s thigh, Shion exclaimed, “What happened?”
“Tried to do T by myself for the first time.”
Shion let out a laugh before he could help it, and Nezumi’s irritated flick of the tongue above his head did nothing to quiet him. “Sorry,” he said, sitting up to press a brief kiss against Nezumi’s cheek. His breath still came out of him in mirth, though not to mock. “It’s just—you made such a big deal out of it, I thought you’d been mugged or something.”
“How badly did you mess up?” Shion asked. He brushed his index against the gauze. The skin under didn’t look swollen, at least.
“Kinda bad. I put blood everywhere.”
“Explains the laundry three days early.”
There was a pause, and then: “Safu helped,” Nezumi admitted.
Shion stayed silent, though his chest felt warm. He put his hand at Nezumi’s nape, stroking his thumb against the side of his neck gently. His skin was always so soft.
“Anyway,” Nezumi continued, voice slightly hoarse now. “I made it on the second try. It won’t happen again.”
“I’m sure of it.”
Nezumi squinted at him in suspicion. “You better not go blabber about it to Inukashi.”
“I would never,” Shion replied, lips stretched into a smile, before pulling Nezumi down into another kiss.
This one was less gentle than the first. Shion felt Nezumi’s teeth dig into his smirk until he had to soften his own lips and make them pliable—until he had to open them and tilt his head, Nezumi’s tongue warm in his mouth and Nezumi’s breath coming hot against his cheek.
There wasn’t a shiver inside him now that didn’t come out of affection.